In the first of a series profiling the brightest and the best young graduates to emerge from the upcoming Catlin Guide, we chat to Lydia Brain, whose video and photographic work with the Hasidic Jewish community shines a light on an underrepresented and overlooked part of London.
You spend a lot of time with Hasidic Jewish men for your work. How did this all start off?
I’m fascinated with really tight knit communities, especially ones that appear displaced. For me just walking around in North London and seeing Hasidic Jewish men was intriguing; maybe it was to do with their clothing or the fact that it feels like they are living in a different time, a time that’s fixed at a certain point in the past.
How did you convince them to let you film them and hang out with them?
I approached them as a person that was intrigued and keen to learn. I was open and spoke about my personal background and my cultural heritage and why it meant a lot to me; when somebody comes to you and they say that they want to learn from you, not only is it flattering but it’s something that they didn’t turn their back against.
What is it about dance that makes it the basis for quite a few of your works?
Dance is something integral and often at the centre of many Jewish festivals and celebrations. For me, it’s something that I see as a method of homogenization; for a short segment of time you could be the Prince of Azerbaijan dancing with Mick Hucknall (crazy example I know) but for that particular period of time they would be on the same platform, dancing at the same time to the same music, removing all social and cultural barriers.
Your art tackles pretty serious subjects, but it manages to be pretty funny at the same time. What’s the importance of humor for you?
As a viewer, if you were to find something funny it’s an instant response, so it’s common you would question why: “Why do I find this dancing Jewish man funny? Should I find him funny or is it wrong that I find him funny?” Humor can evoke questions and that’s what I want from my artwork, I want it to create questions and dialogue. Not everything has to be serious.
In “A day with a Hasidic Jew”, you document your subject going around London but he insists on keeping a three-step distance from you. Are there certain restraints that come up whilst working with religious subjects?
In a word – YES. I have to accept I create artwork with people, I create socially engaged artwork and this throws up questions and issues of ethics. My priority for when I’ve been making the artwork, when I’ve been asking these men to do certain things for me is that they’re happy and that they’re comfortable; maybe I am pushing them to do something that is out of their comfort zone, but it’s not something that can damage them or damage what is important to them such as their reputation with in the Jewish community. It is important for me to constantly ask permission to show works and to be aware consent can be taken away at any point.
What does 2013 hold for you?
I aim to create a closer dialogue with Orthodox Jewish life situated here in England and in Israel. I have been shortlisted for 2013’s Catlin Art Prize.… And of course some more Hasidic men dancing to pop.
The Catlin Guide 2013: New Artists in the UK is launched at the London Art Fair 2013, 16 – 20 January. It will also be available from Amazon, Culture Label and selected book sellers (£12.99).
Words: Ellie Sigman